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South African women live with the burden of ‘constant vigilance’

COMMENT

On my very first night in a house I had just moved into, the electricity went off. Mine was the only house in the street without power. Because I had moved while my two children were on holiday, I was home alone.

I was not yet used to the house or the area, so I found being alone in the dark very creepy. I lodged a report with City Power, the electricity provider in my area, and after multiple reports technicians were eventually dispatched. They found nothing wrong with the box outside on the street and asked if they could come in to check the one in the yard. I felt vulnerable without electricity and let them in, but then as they entered the gate and I saw the toolbox they were carrying, I felt fear grip me. “What if they use their tools to kill me” was the only thought on my mind. 

Quietly, I got a knife and kept it close by. They eventually fixed the problem and I felt bad for suspecting the technicians of wanting to harm me. 

And yet, as most women know, my fears were not unfounded. The latest verified data shows that a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa, a rate which is almost five times higher than the global average. Add to that grim reality recent police statistics which show a 4.6% increase in reports of sexual offences, which also include rape and sexual assault, and I know my reaction was justified. 

Now with countries across the world reporting a surge in violence against women during lockdowns meant to slow the spread of Covid-19, it has rightfully been an issue of intense focus. But men’s violence against women contributes to women living under some form of lockdown under regular circumstances too, because of the daily restrictions on our movement we face because of fear.

Most women live with the burden of constant vigilance. The news articles we read, the stories we hear from friends and family and sometimes our own experiences teach us to be afraid and to be on guard. An in-depth analysis of the Victims of Crime Survey data found that a third of women feared going into open spaces and parks and more than half of women (54%) felt unsafe walking alone in the dark. 

Sharing trip information when using an Uber so someone knows your location, the overwhelming worry when a friend doesn’t let you know she is home safely after a night out, crossing the road when there’s a group of men gathered and making decisions about what to wear when using public transport are just some examples of the daily torment.

In a popular Twitter thread, a social researcher informally ran a poll asking people to share what they do to avoid being sexually assaulted. All the men responded with different versions of “nothing”, whereas women listed very specific actions they take daily, such as holding keys as potential weapons and feeling uncomfortable when strapping a child into the car seat.

What should be ordinary tasks in adult life, such as getting repairs done or having something installed, easily become very complicated because of the risk that goes with it if you are a woman. 

Personally, sometimes my fear is so overwhelming, it’s just easier for me to get a male friend to book a service for me or be present when work is being done at my place. It also helps me avoid invasive questions like why am I doing something myself and not having my husband do it? 

This means that, on top of dealing with whatever is going on, I have to expend a lot of energy on additional logistics and worrying about safety. Constantly expecting people to hurt me is not a way I want to live, however.

Of course, some people will argue that the majority of the murder and assault victims are adult men.  What this claim ignores is that it is predominantly men who are responsible for these murders and assaults, so it is in the interest of men too to act against violent men.

For years, women in South Africa have called on government to lead the charge on ending men’s violence against women. Now, with more attention on the issue during lockdown, the response should be more urgent and also include effective long-term interventions to ensure that we do not return to a “normal” where women live in fear of violence every day.

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Koketso Moeti
Koketso Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2019 she was announced as an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity. She is also an inaugural Obama Foundation fellow and an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow.

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